My friend and I were coming out of the mall after having noodles at the Wai Wai city outlet and purchasing some books at Crosswords. We had time on our hands and were in no hurry to go back home. So, once again, we halted at the front gate leaning against the parked vehicles and started chatting.
My friend was engrossed in sharing some story, when my eyes were arrested by two small kids who, only a while earlier, were trying to stop passers by and requesting them to buy some colourful balloons. One of them was a four- or five-year-old girl, and the other was a boy a year or two younger than the girl.
They were holding a restaurant menu with pictures of food items. They were looking at that piece of paper with amazement – their eyes all lit up. And then I noticed that they were elated on seeing the tasty dishes and showing them to each other pointing at the pictures. I wondered what they must have been muttering to each other and what gave them so much joy while looking at the pictures.
I became completely detached from the conversation – and couldn’t help but wonder if they would ever be able to savour the dishes they were fancying and relishing. My heart was reaching out to help them in any way I could. I thought of going in with them and allow them to eat whatever they wanted – but I couldn’t.
My heart sank – there was something in their gleaming eyes that stopped my feet and also made me feel guilty for unknown reasons. I felt guilty about being able to enjoy all the pleasures – good food, education, nice clothes and a comfortable house – while these innocent buds stood there barefoot, dressed in shabby clothes and getting chirpy about seeing a mere restaurant menu.
I remember another incident related to the scope of our efforts towards these underprivileged children. Recently, at my workplace, under the regular corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity, we the employees were asked to contribute money to help poor children on the streets. The HR suggested us to collect money and distribute burgers from the outlet McDonald’s outlet among the street kids in the areas nearby.
During the meeting, she recalled how her small daughter loved going to that outlet – for the free toy that comes with the burger meals. But, the street kids who are not interested in the toys, are enticed by the mere sight of the burgers. So, she thought it would be great to give them a chance to enjoy the burgers which they could only see from afar.
Many in the team questioned this very idea as they didn’t consider it a right way to help these children. They reasoned that feeding them burgers for a day wasn’t going to change anything in their lives – and this was actually true. They can be happy eating burgers for a day – but the government and the country’s citizens need to do a lot more to actually help them.
The first instance depicts the condition of street children, while the second one is representative of the extent of our efforts to help these kids. In between these lie the numerous reasons and the structured solutions. These kids are not independent – they are standing on the roads instead of being in schools because someone told or forced them to do so. One of the many reasons is their parents’ inability to feed and provide them with basic amenities. Their parents are either workers or rural migrants who come to the cities looking for jobs. This is mainly because the fast development and expansion of these cities are generating a huge demand for daily wage labourers.
As it stands, these workers who migrate in hope of a better living are compelled to lead a pitiful life because the daily wages are not up to the defined or required standards. Consequently, all the members of their families are forced to earn to make ends meet. Despite adequate laws for standard wages being in place, there are not enough measures to ensure a strict implementation of these laws in all areas and places. There is still a huge scope of improvement in the implementation of these rules with a uniform degree of discipline.
The same problem exists in the case of the implementation of child labour laws. As a result, countless young children are employed and exploited for cheap labour by both private and public organisations.
As regards the planning of a reformative structure for the improvement of the general conditions of children on streets, the Ministry of Women and Child Development should first form a strong network that ensures the micro-management of laws that are already in place. To make this happen, a separate legal department can be set up in multiple centres especially in cities prone to the menace of child labour – with the sole purpose of putting a check on child labour issues. These departments should be responsible for closely examining work sites to ensure that the basic wages provisions and child labour laws are not violated.
There is also a need for more education centres to provide education for street children without discrimination. The quality of teaching and other facilities needs to be in line with the legal standards, so that the poor kids can have equal career opportunities in future. Other possible measures can be the provision of special monetary benefits such as education and health funds to the parents of such kids, along with their basic pay.
Apart from the already-formulated laws and systems, a new measure to enforce the ‘mandatory education for all’ provision can also be improvised. A new attribute of ‘mandatory education to all children’ can be added to public surveys and other exercises that involve a periodic interaction between government officials and citizens such as the census. The facilities of primary level education can encompass other extended comforts- such as day-boarding, medical care along with the existing ones. After all, street children need far more than just mid-day meals.
Apart from the big changes at a political level, many positive outcomes can be anticipated just by making genuine efforts at the individual level. For instance, the CSR activities can be used to create a bridge between corporate employees and street children. Instead of distributing burgers or other consumable items, we should think of giving the more valuable gifts of knowledge and values.
The employees can also be encouraged to take some time out from their work schedules (without having to apply for leaves) and meet the kids to interact with and teach them, according to their capabilities. These interactions should not be meant only for imparting academic knowledge – they can also be used to address and narrow the financial and lifestyle gap between them and us. There are NGOs who constantly work towards curbing food wastage and provide the leftovers of weddings and functions to needy people on the roads. Such institutions must also be encouraged to be more active through financial funding.
These children are the little stars who might lose their sheen if they are protected from gradually disappearing in the street dust. They are the future of our nation – and therefore, their health, education and overall well-being should be the highest priority of government as well as fellow citizens. Today, if we move forward in change their fates, they may well end up changing the fate of the nation tomorrow.
Image used for representative purposes only.